I know of no story that has been so publicly denigrated in recent years by the Christian right than J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. By “recent years” I suppose I mean in the past decade. Here at the end of the series it seems like most of the seriously negative publicity has died off. That being said I know that in an awful lot of Christian circles (including my own church at times) Rowling’s books are considered a mere half-step above the work of Anton Lavey. This is, of course, because Harry Potter is a wizard. But what people continually fail to understand is that the magic of Harry Potter has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of witchcraft condemned by the Bible. Rowling’s magic is, in my mind, a metaphor for mystery, for all that is wondrous and glorious in the world and yet remains beyond our rational understanding. And what is more, the themes of Rowling’s books are deeply Christian. Her explorations of exclusion, racism, chosen-ness, grace, love, courage, heroism and redemption are almost all cribbed straight from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Which leads me to today’s post. Welcome to the first installment of The Gospel According to Harry Potter.*
Wherein we meet Vernon Dursley, aka the world’s biggest jerk…
“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 7).
Normal. It is the overcoming drive towards normalcy, the status quo, the mundane, the ordinary and everyday, that drives the social movement we call conservatism. Due to a relatively strange confluence of historical, social and political factors we live in an age in which Christianity is considered a conservative religion. But it hasn’t always been that way. There was a day when Jesus and his followers were considered threats to the status quo, rebels and renegades who consistently stood against the injustice of the established order. But the world doesn’t see us that way anymore. Now the world sees us as a great pack of Vernon Dursleys.
Vernon, or Uncle Dursley as he will soon come to be known, is a ridiculous, absurdity of a man. He is self-righteous, he is blustering, he is pompous, he is in short, a jerk. Imagine Polonius adjusted for inflation and driving an Audi through the streets of London. At every turn Dursley seeks to do only one thing: maintain the status of his family. And this is where our lesson about Christianity and conservatism takes shape.
As the name implies conservatism is an attempt to maintain an existing situation. The general tendency of truly conservative Christianity (I’m speaking more of socially conservative Christianity, but similar critiques could be leveled at some brands of theological conservatism) is to maintain the status of Christianity within our society. Unfortunately that’s not how Jesus himself approached the world. Read the Gospel of Luke in particular. In Luke Jesus stands in the tradition of the great 8th century prophets, condemning injustice, lifting up the poor and the downtrodden, and basically just scaring the piss out of the political and religious establishment.
One of the great dichotomies that Rowling will set up for us throughout the Potter series is between the Dursleys of the world and the Potters of the world. It is, in my mind, very much akin to the synoptics’ dichotomy between the pharisees and Jesus. One of the many questions we must ask ourselves as Christians is whether we are on the side of the established order or the side of the weak and the downtrodden. The fact of the matter is that we were never called to be the dominant religion of the world and we were never called to maintain our own wealth, power and influence. We were called to serve, to sacrifice and to die. Perhaps James the brother of Jesus said it best.
“This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of [our] God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, [and] to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:27
*I originally intended to make this a weekly series, but what with Liam’s arrival and my more and more pressing need to finish my actual work (aka my thesis) the series is likely to be a little hit and miss to start with. Hopefully there’s more to come.